• HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is not a static infectious agent but a continually evolving virus.
• To determine whether an unusual virus is, in fact, a new HIV subtype, three cases must be discovered independently.
A new subtype of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) has been discovered, Abbott Laboratories has confirmed.
In a report published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS) on Thursday, the new strain is classified as subtype L in the group M family of HIV-1.
The "M" stands for "major" as it's responsible for more than 90 per cent of HIV infections worldwide.
"This is the first new Group M HIV strain identified since guidelines for classifying subtypes was established in the year 2000," Dr Kuku Apiah, Director Medical, Scientific Affairs – Africa tells the Star in an exclusive interview.
Jonah Sacha, a professor at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University said the findings serve as a reminder of the dangerous diversity of the HIV virus
“This tells us that the HIV epidemic is still ongoing and still evolving,” he said. “The calling card of HIV is its diversity. That’s what’s defeated all of our attempts to create a vaccine.”
Since the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic, 75 million people have been infected with HIV and 37.9 million people currently are living with the virus.
“People think it’s not a problem anymore, and we’ve got it under control. But, really, we don’t,” Sacha said.
Just like other viruses, HIV has the ability to change and mutate over time. It has several different subtypes.
There are 10 different subtypes in the group M family. Subtype L was first identified in 1983, and then seen again in 1990, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was found a third time in 2001, also in Congo.
But it's taken this long for the technology used to sequence the subtypes to improve. Now scientists are able to test the entire genome to confirm the samples were all part of the same subtype.
Mary Rodgers, author of the new study told BBC the strain is not new; rather, what's changed is the technology used to study the virus.
"The subtype has been around as long as all the other strains have. We just didn't recognize it as an official subtype until now," Rodgers said.
"Thanks to the work done by the global health community over the past few decades, the goal of ending the HIV pandemic is becoming feasible," Rodgers said.
"This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to outthink this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution."
Abbott is making this new strain accessible to the research community to evaluate its impact on diagnostic testing, treatments and potential vaccines
The science behind genetic sequencing to discover new viruses
Samples of blood were collected from Kenya and 44 other countries across six continents.
"Abbott's global viral surveillance collected samples from Kenya, Cameroon, China, Egypt,Uganda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, United States, Germany, India, Zambia and Vietnam," read the report.
Other countries include Ghana,Colombia,Burundi,DRC,Croatia,Egypt,Equitorial Guinea,France,Greece,Guinea Bissau,Haiti,Honduras,India,Israel,Haiti,Ivory Coast,Nigeria,Saudi Arabia,Russia ,South Africa and Philippines.
To determine whether an unusual virus is, in fact, a new HIV subtype, three cases must be discovered independently.
The first two samples of this subtype were discovered in DRC in the 1980s and the 1990s. The third, collected in 2001, was difficult to sequence at that time because of the amount of virus in the sample and the existing technology.
Today, next-generation sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs.
In order to utilise this technology, Abbott scientists had to develop and apply new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.
"Identifying new viruses such as this one is like searching for a needle in a haystack," Rodgers said,
WHERE DID HIV COME FROM?
Scientists first identified chimpanzees as the source of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections in humans.
The chimpanzee version of the immunodeficiency virus (simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV) entered the human population through contact with infected blood from scratches, bites or meat consumption.
Additional strains of HIV resulted from cross-species transmission from other nonhuman primates, such as gorillas and monkeys. Over time, the virus has spread across Africa into other parts of the world.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO TRACK HIV
Because HIV can evolve to produce new strains, it’s critical to make sure these strains don’t evade detection and treatment, which could cause new pandemics.
This prompted Abbott to launch our global Surveillance Program more than 25 years ago to make sure that the tests available can detect any strains that are present.